Below is my column on academic work claiming that the Second Amendment is a relic of slavery. The reframing of the debate follows a familiar pattern in academia. Indeed, the same type of sweeping (and unchallenged) generalities was used recently to declare Olympic surfing a relic of American imperialism. The framing of such claims often precede any search for the facts. However, academics know that there is an eager and unquestioning audience for such publications. Conversely, those academics challenging such claims risk isolation and shunning in today’s intolerant environment. What is most striking about this latest claim is that it is directly and comprehensively contradicted by historical sources. Yet, there are relatively few academics who have publicly challenged the claims as media heralds the theory as a type of breakthrough publication. As discussed earlier, the theory is neither new nor well-founded.
Here is the column:
Racism seems to be the most common denominator of today’s political controversies. Issues long debated over other grounds — the Senate’s filibuster rule, voter ID laws, even standardized testing, math, statistics and meritocracy — have all been reframed as a choice between racism and equality.
The reframing of such issues in racial terms removes any need to respond to other issues — and it relieves advocates of defending the racism charge. It may be the ultimate conversation stopper — but that advantage is precisely its weakness, particularly when racist roots are less than evident.
The latest example comes from the American Civil Liberties Union, which posted a discussion of how the Second Amendment is a product of racism. Supporting commentary explained how “Anti-Blackness determined the inclusion of the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights, and has informed the unequal and racist application of gun laws.”
Some media and legal commentators have fawned over a new book, “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America,” by Dr. Carol Anderson, chair of Emory University’s Black Studies Department. Anderson claims the Second Amendment “was designed and has consistently been constructed to keep African Americans powerless and vulnerable.” In interviews with media outlets like CNN and NPR, her theory was not challenged on the Second Amendment’s history or purpose, despite overwhelming (and largely ignored) evidence to the contrary. Instead, NPR breathlessly billed its interview as “Historian Carol Anderson Uncovers The Racist Roots Of The Second Amendment.”
Slavery was a matter discussed both at the Declaration of Independence and during the Constitutional debates. However, the suggestion that it was a primary motivation for the Second Amendment is utter nonsense.
States opposed to slavery, like Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island, had precursor state constitutional provisions recognizing the right to bear arms. In his famous 1770 defense of Capt. Thomas Preston in the Boston Massacre trial, John Adams declared that British soldiers had a right to defend themselves since “here every private person is authorized to arm himself.” His second cousin and co-Founding Father, Samuel Adams, was vehemently anti-slavery and equally supportive of the right to bear arms.
Guns were viewed as essential in much of America, which was then a frontier nation, needed for food — but also to protect a free people from tyranny and other threats. (The Minutemen at Concord, after all, were not running to a Klan meeting in 1775.) Law enforcement was relatively scarce at the time, even in the more populous states — but, of course, some writers today claim the first police departments were products of slavery, too, used to enforce that system and to recapture escaped slaves.
The latest claim is reminiscent of the controversy over “The 1619 Project” produced by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who claimed the American Revolution was motivated in large part to preserve slavery. Hannah-Jones clearly came up with her framing before looking at the facts, which directly contradict her claim. While at least one historian objected during the fact-checking process, it was published and only later corrected, along with other errors.
The Second Amendment claim is equally unfounded, but the argument allows for advocates to argue that this original “antiblackness” continues to shape “the unequal and racist application of gun laws.” This argument is maintained despite the fact that a quarter of African Americans are gun owners (compared with 36 percent of whites) and gun sales have been increasing in the African American community. Some African Americans have long viewed guns as an equalizer, including escaped slave and famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who, in an editorial, heralded the power of “a good revolver, a steady hand.” Gun ownership has a long, fiercely defended tradition in the Black community. Indeed, Ida B. Wells, one of the most prominent anti-lynching activists, declared: “The Winchester Rifle deserves a place of honor in every Black home.”
For decades, the meaning of the Second Amendment wallowed in a debate over whether the right to bear arms is an individual right. Gun-control advocates lost that debate before the Supreme Court in 2008. Now, however, critics can dispense with such long-standing arguments by claiming the amendment is a relic of slavery and a tool of racism. That instantly converts any Second Amendment defenders into advocates not of freedom but of anti-blackness and oppression. It simplifies the argument and silences opposing views.
Indeed, in today’s standard, it is not enough to be non-racist, you must prove yourself to be anti-racist. Yet it is hard to establish yourself as anti-racist if you are defending rules or amendments or countries already decried as being racist. Moreover, if you are trained to view everything through an anti-racist lens, it can become the only discernible option — like the old military adage that “if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
It is even dangerous today to observe that any given legal problem is not a problem of racism. Some are; many are not. But if everything is a product or relic of racism, the “racism” label becomes less notable or less imperative to address.
There is no need to rewrite history. Racism permeates our history, including a war in which hundreds of thousands of many races died to end slavery in this country.
We have continued that struggle through the Civil Rights period and into the current day. But those efforts are hampered, not advanced, by converting all political disputes into zero-sum fights over racism, which leaves little room for debate and even less room for persuasion.
The resulting silence is not evidence of consensus but of intimidation. Racism is real, but it cannot be defeated if it is reduced to a political trump card.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.